Before I begin, don’t forget that Saturday, March 31 is Earth Hour. At 8:30 p.m. local time, shut off all your lights and electronics. An hour later, when everything is back on, look to these pages for a full (well, my full) report.
I was reading a science article in “New Yorker” recently and came across this: “In 1975, when biologists met at Asilomar, California, to discuss....” Right away I could picture the Asilomar Conference Center, having vacationed there before. In fact, I thought, didn’t I write a little essay about that? I did, a couple decades ago, and here it is.
Asilomar resort – July 30, 1995
We had a vacation. I’d have been satisfied just sitting motionless on the sofa like a lizard on a rock for two days. Instead we went all-out and, with the in-laws, went down the coast to a resort called Asilomar, near Carmel.
I should point out that I did nothing to help plan this weekend, which is actually my preferred way of vacationing. If I’d gotten more involved, I would have realized that Asilomar is located in a place I’ve been to at least a dozen times to visit relatives. The Asilomar resort is about the closest lodging you can get to the ocean without actually owning property in the prestigious 17-Mile Drive community of Pebble Beach. It’s a mere 150 feet or so from the boardwalk, a wooden sidewalk that meanders through a bunch of sand dunes covered with all kinds of interesting indigenous flowers. The boardwalk ends at a two-lane road that connects Monterey, Pacific Grove, and Pebble Beach.
In all my trips to this beach I’d never noticed the resort. I think this speaks well for the place. The official name of the resort is “Asilomar Conference Center,” and most of the people there are attending some formal conference. I guess they get a certain number of chance visitors like ourselves, but that didn’t make me feel any less uneasy that I didn’t have a name tag. I felt that a couple of people looked at me warily, as though I must have had a name tag, but was choosing not to wear it as some kind of rebellion.
The resort itself is a huge compound of brown shingle lodges that look like apartment buildings. Each one bears a wooden plaque announcing its name: “The View Crescent,” “Whitecaps,” “The North Woods,” “Willow” (where we stayed), and “Curlew,” to name a few. They’re outfitted with magnificently seventies furniture (brown-orange vinyl) and each room has at least one deer painting.
I should emphasize the undeniably pleasurable amenities of the place: the surf is beautiful, and the air a wonderfully crisp blend of ocean-smell and pine. There are indeed deer hanging around, and the rock formations on the beach have perfect little tide pools filled with hermit crabs and snails and whatnot. We even saw a sea otter out among the waves, diving to avoid the waves and drifting on his back eating.
Beyond that, I felt the place was strange, almost like an enchanted fairy tale. After driving through a grand arched gate bearing the Asilomar name, we suddenly had to be careful not to run anybody over. People wandered around right in the middle of the street, looking at us in surprise as though we were driving on the sidewalk. An old guy in a tattered, faded “Asilomar” polo shirt (clearly a repeat visitor) seemed to eye me with suspicion. There was no signage. After driving around awhile looking for Willow, we felt lost—and in fact, we were. The roads make about as much sense as those of 17-Mile Drive (i.e., they twist all around like a plate of pasta).
After checking into our room, I felt as though we conspicuously lacked official business on the grounds, and we spent most of the evening at the beach straying too far out into the water and soaking our shoes and the cuffs of our pants. Then, we went down to the lodge and learned that we had missed dinner. We alone didn’t know dinner was served only from 6:00 until 7:00. We showed up at 7:30 and had missed the whole thing, from the fruit cup all the way past the steak, the potatoes, and even the pudding. After eating at a restaurant in Monterey, we returned to the lodge to sleep, and the next morning we didn’t fail to make it to breakfast on time.
When we arrived at breakfast, I noticed right away that our meal tickets were not the same color as everybody else’s. Not only that, but we weren’t seated in the large dining area with everybody else, but were taken down a hallway to a much smaller room, where we were seated at a table with a couple of strangers. Not having any common ground with them, we talked about the fruit, the yogurt (why Nutrasweet?) and other things of no importance. Lack of participation in any conference was a matter of quiet shame, I felt, for all of the outcasts in the auxiliary dining hall.
Walking the grounds on the way back to the beach, I noticed how friendly and full of joy everybody was. It was like a weird “Star Trek” episode from the ‘60s. Grown men rubbed each others’ backs. Everybody beamed. Name tags were prominently displayed. People had a skip in their steps. I witnessed countless displays of people inquiring into each others’ health, comfort, and happiness. The only exception to universal bliss was a member of our own party who complained that there had been no shampoo in the shower. Beyond that, everything was Leave It to Beaver.
In fact, I couldn’t help but feeling—and perhaps this is merely the projection of a wicked soul on an innocent utopia—that there was some kind of shiny veneer over everybody; that their joie-de-vivre was perhaps slightly forced, that the universal spirit of goodwill was a trompe l’oeil, like the splinter-free fake wood of the card tables.
Why couldn’t people admit that this was simply a decadent weekend getaway? Why not confess that a weekend at this paradise was a simple exercise in unrestrained hedonism? Why the moral imperative of using this opportunity to be noble and good and true to some cause? Returning to our room, I found a little card that management left for us:
To Our Guests:
We came across an ancient prayer, updated it slightly and offer it to you with our heartfelt thanks to you for coming to Asilomar.
The Stranger Within Our Gates
Because this conference center is a human institution to serve people, we hope that you will be granted peace and rest while you are under our roof.
May this room and conference center be your “second” home. May those you love be near you in thought and dreams. Even though we may not get to know you, we hope that you will be comfortable and happy, as if you were in your own home.
May the business that brought you our way prosper. May every contact you make and every message you receive add to your joy. When you leave, may your journey be safe.
We are all travelers. From “birth till death” we travel between the eternities. May these days be pleasant for you, profitable for society, helpful for those you meet and a joy to those who know and love you best.
A prayer, no less! And yet, it has those few very un-prayer-like phrases: “may every contact you make...” and “may the business ... prosper.” And the bit about making this our “‘second’ home” sounded a lot like an ad (“y’all come back now, ya hear?”) for the resort itself. (And those quotation marks around “second” ... was that in deference to those who actually do have second, even third, homes?)
But perhaps I wouldn’t have been moved to comment at all if it weren’t for the tourist guide supplied in our room. In addition to the normal promotional “articles” about local restaurants, it had a section describing the character of each of the nearby communities. The suggestions of apotheosis continued:
“Even though the years alter the face of Pebble Beach, its charm remains. It is this essence of place that radiates like a halo to embrace every moment in its magic.”
Can’t you just see the unicorns? the rainbows? And yet, incongruously, this soft-focus statement appears in an article boldly titled “Pebble Beach: The Elite Address.” The natural landscape is commemorated briefly, but the real thrust of the article beings, “In 1915, Samuel Finley Brown Morse, manager of Pacific Improvement Company, forced a grand rethinking of the coastline acreage.” What follows is the moving tale of how this unimportant community became the host of the prestigious Pebble Beach golf course. Names of pro golfers are dropped like ticker tape. The merits of the golfing in Pebble Beach are expounded at length. Wealth and prestige are championed. I wish I had some more juicy quotes, but I wasn’t allowed to remove the book from the room.
As I leafed through the fashion (i.e., advertising) section of the book, I came upon material that could (and should) make any tourism board blush. Decadence, and the “magic” that expensive gifts can bring, are celebrated shamelessly throughout the fashion section. One photo is of a good looking couple posing on a golf cart, both attired lavishly, the woman’s hat graced by a bunch of fake grapes. The couple’s eyes twinkle. The caption, in large italic letters and surrounded by quotes, reads, “He wants you to learn to play golf. You’re not so sure, but you’d do anything to make him happy....” That’s the spirit. We wouldn’t want the magnificent expense of a world-class golf course to deter the complete novice....
The next page has a woman dressed in a lavish sequined evening gown. The caption reads, “He said to wear something elegant....” The woman reader automatically completes the sentence: “... but I haven’t got a thing to wear!” After all, who packs such a sequined gown for a weekend getaway? Suddenly I found myself thinking warm thoughts about the humble sweats and warm-up suits warn by the Asilomar guests.
The next page shows the elegant woman reclining on a bench overlooking a scenic vista, staring out into the distance while her man caresses her lovingly; the caption reads, “You’ve never been so happy together....” I was beginning to get ill. Then I turned to a picture of a tastefully dressed man gazing thoughtfully at his wife, she clad only in a fluffy white bathrobe, with the caption, “It’s been a wonderful getaway, and tonight you’re really going to spoil him....”
It dawned on me that perhaps there are really only a couple of possible ways that tourist bureaus are likely to represent such a choice vacation spot. They can celebrate the wealth and prestige itself, reminding the tourists how élite they are, like the fashion section of the guidebook did. Or, they can encourage visitors to appreciate the wonderful local amenities, but only while reminding them that the physical trappings are incidental and secondary to the resort’s rich tradition and spirit of community. Given the alternatives, I guess I appreciate the effort made by the Asilomar folks, even their message didn’t ring entirely true. I wish the region could just exist, without anybody trying to convey to me its “essence of place.”
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